Can an Anti-Trump Republican Win a Special Election in Texas?

Michael Wood voted for Trump in 2020. Now he wants to lead the charge for the GOP to move on.

Michael Wood voted for Donald Trump in 2020 because of his strong record on deregulation, Israel, the 2017 tax bill, and Supreme Court justices. 

“You line all that up against—in early November 2020—an increasingly radicalized Democratic Party that was talking about packing the Supreme Court, abolishing the filibuster, statehood for Puerto Rico, statehood for D.C., Medicare for all,” he said. “So in November 2020, I felt like I didn’t really have a choice, which is why I voted for Donald Trump.” 

His tepid support for Trump leading up to November 3 has since evaporated. “Everything since Election Day, including January 6, really shook me to the core,” he said. “The commander in chief of the most powerful military in the history of the world, leaning on local elections officials in Georgia to ‘find’ a few thousand ballots? That’s outrageous. And if a Democratic president had done that, Republicans would be in the streets screaming ‘sic semper tyrannis.’”

Wood is one of 23 candidates running in Texas’s 6th Congressional District race to succeed the late Rep. Ron Wright. Wright, who had been battling lung cancer, died in February after testing positive for COVID-19. The race will proceed as a special election: If no candidate secures more than 50 percent of the vote on May 1, the top two contenders will compete in a midsummer runoff.

The race includes 11 Republicans, 10 Democrats, one independent, and one Libertarian. Among the list of GOP hopefuls is Susan Wright, Ron Wright’s widow. She is a member of the State Republican Executive Committee and has already racked up a hefty list of endorsements from local Republican officials. 

Other familiar names on the GOP side include former attorney and WWE wrestler “Big Dan” Rodimer—whose “own the libs” campaign video compares Nancy Pelosi to a bull—and state Rep. Jake Ellzey, who lost to Ron Wright in the district’s 2018 Republican primary by 4.4 percent. Two former Trump officials are also competing for the seat: former assistant administrator for the Small Business Administration Sery Kim and former chief of staff of the Department of Health and Human Services Brian Harrison.

But Wood is a Trump voter running on an explicitly anti-Trump platform. A former infantry officer in the Marine Corps and small business owner in Fort Worth, he thinks this off-year special election is an opportunity for Texas Republicans to finally move beyond “Donald Trump, QAnon, and conspiracy theories.” 

“If we can pull this off, I really do think that it’s going to create a domino effect that will carry into the 2022 midterms,” said Wood, who was endorsed earlier this month by Illinois GOP Rep. Adam Kinzinger’s Country First PAC. He said that winning this race would empower Republican candidates nationwide with a new vocabulary in a post-Trump era. “They can say, ‘I understand why you supported Donald Trump. Maybe I even supported him in years past. But now is the time for the good of everything that we care about to move past him,’ ” Wood said. 

But can an anti-Trump candidate win a Republican primary in Texas? After all, this is the state whose own attorney general, Ken Paxton, filed a lawsuit seeking to overturn the election results in four battleground states where Biden won. And let’s not forget that in December, Texas Republican Party chairman Allen West—upon hearing the news of the Supreme Court’s dismissal of Paxton’s lawsuit—issued a statement suggesting that so-called “law-abiding states” should perhaps “bond together and form a Union of states that will abide by the constitution.”

Texas’ 6th Congressional District runs from the Dallas/Fort Worth suburbs to about an hour south of Dallas. “It’s the first bellwether, if you will, for what the future of the suburbs in Texas will look like,” said Brendan Steinhauser, a consultant working for Wood’s campaign. “The suburbs of Texas now look like the suburbs in many other places in the country: They’re diverse, they’re typically highly educated, high income. So I think now that we don’t have Trump on the ticket, it’s not about the presidential race.”

“This is the first salvo in the battle for the soul of the Republican Party and the conservative movement going forward,” Steinhauser said.

Texas-based GOP consultant Craig Murphy thinks that Wood’s anti-Trump platform isn’t a winning strategy in this particular race. “This is a district that went for Trump. This isn’t an election about how you can win an election without Trump voters,” said Murphy, who works for state Rep. Jake Ellzey’s campaign. “I think all the candidates who have a chance to win are going to be in sync with most of the Trump values, and that’s who’s going to get elected.”

Texas’ 6th Congressional District, though reliably Republican, has begun trending bluer in recent presidential elections. Mitt Romney won the district by 17 points in 2012. Trump won it by 12 points in 2016 and then only by 3 points in 2020. The district has not elected a Democrat since former Rep. Phil Gramm changed his party affiliation to Republican leading up to his 1983 reelection.

“It's not a purple seat or anything, but it is one of the least Republican Republican seats in Texas,” Murphy explained. “There’s enough votes out there for a Democrat to be in a runoff—it’ll be tough for a Democrat to win.”

But there is some indication of Trump fatigue. Ron Wright outperformed Trump by 6 points in November.

Wood thinks that his hardcore Republican platform will boost his chances in the special election. A self-described “immigration restrictionist,” Wood said he supports resurrecting Trump’s “Remain in Mexico” policy and “would like to see both lower levels, both of illegal immigration and and also legal immigration.” He voiced his strong opposition to the House Democrats’ sweeping voting rights bill, H.R. 1—known as the For the People Act—and said he believes the Republican Party should enact measures to keep voter rolls accurate and “make in-person voting the gold standard whenever possible.” 

“There’s a revolutionary vein in the American psyche that should not be irresponsibly tapped into,” Wood said. “We’re a nation born of revolutionary struggle.  It’s in our DNA.” He added that Trump was “right to be impeached” earlier this year and should have been convicted in the Senate. “There’s never been a greater betrayal of the oath of office by a president in our history.”

The anti-Trump candidate has also repeatedly criticized high-level Texas Republicans who questioned Joe Biden’s victory in the November election. He called Paxton’s lawsuit an “embarrassment” and said it “was absolutely right to get laughed out of every single court that it was put in front of.” West’s subsequent secession threat didn’t escape Wood’s criticism either. “I was incredibly outraged when Allen West—on official Republican Party letterhead—started playing around with secession as if we were the party of Jefferson Davis and not the party of Abraham Lincoln,” he said. 

Wood is tired of what he called the “stunt-making” that has come to define the GOP in recent years. “One of the most annoying things about what Donald Trump’s done to the party over the past few years is that he’s turned us into whiny little progressives,” he said. “I don’t think that we're gonna get anywhere as a party if we just walk around in this election or in future elections, saying ‘I’m a staunch Trump supporter,’ or just throwing out phrases like ‘America First.’ ”

With 10 other Republican hopefuls competing for Wright’s seat, Wood has an uphill battle as the only explicitly anti-Trump GOP candidate in the race. But GOP consultants and party leaders are keeping a watchful eye on this special election to see whether Wood’s message resonates with suburban GOP voters in one of Texas’ palest-red Republican districts.